A day/night doubleheader

I pitched a double-header yesterday in New York: a noon talk at Parsons School of Design and Technology, an evening talk at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. I spent the interval between sipping cups of tea to try to let my throat recover and talking Citizen Media with Jay Rosen… more or less as pleasant a way to pass an afternoon in New York as I can think of.

The fun of talking to students is twofold: I get to talk for far longer than I get to speak at many conferences, which lets me cover more and different ground; and I get different – and often richer – questions from students than from any other audience.

Because I give about a talk a week these days (on average – I’m giving three this week), my hard drive is filled with slide decks for all occasions – the five minute, ten minute and thirty minute decks on Global Voices, citizen media as a whole, ICT for development, Geekcorps, internet security… When I get a whole hour to talk, it’s the opportunity to mmerge two or more and see what results.

If I were a different person, I’d know what I wanted to say before I stood on stage. Instead, I often do some of my best thinking on my feet, trying to string together the sites and projects I’m interested in showing off. (Note to self: this only works when there’s no text on your slides.) Mashing up my usual 30-minute Global Voices and Citizen Media decks with the “History of Internet Community in Seven Minutes” deck made me realize a couple of ideas that I’ve been trying to articulate, but only seem to be able to figure out while pacing on a stage:

The read/write web – or, if you prefer, Web 2.0, or the chmod 777 Web – is interesting less because the interactive technologies introduced are fascinating, but because they’re able to be used by such a ginormous audience. Many of the ways in which we’re “learning” to interact with each other with these “new” tools are actually very old – the “internet community talk” tries to make the point that most of these modes of interaction have roots in technologies of the seventies and eighties.

(Giving this stretch of the talk, where I argue that text-based MUDs were more fun than World of Warcraft makes me feel old, old, old, like Alan Kay giving his patented “we had realtime vector graphics in the 1960s because we knew how to walk uphill both ways in the snow and like it” talk.)

What’s really exciting – to me, at least – about these tools is the size of the audience. Tools that connect a global population of geeks are cool – tools that connect a billion people worldwide, including up to 70% of all Americans, are potentially revolutionary. When news stories “broke” on the Internet in the 1980s and early 1990s, it was very unlikely that the story would jump from the small community following it on Usenet to mainstream media. In 2006, when the “Stop Sex Predators” blog posts Representative Foley’s suggestive emails, it’s possible that the majority of Americans could see those emails online… which helps force the hand of media organizations who’d had access to the story and hadn’t yet reported it. The possibility that the network can become a read/write mass medium helps empower people writing on it, even if they’re read only by a small audience.

What’s most interesting to me is the fact that the billion internet users includes not just lots of Americans, Euros, Koreans and Japanese, but that it includes a small subset of (wired, comparatively wealthy and privleged) people in developing nations… who have just as much right and opportunity to address the other billion users as any user in the North. Paradoxically, it’s easier for someone in Zimbabwe to address an audience in the US than it is to speak to her countrymen. There’s no guarantee that the billion net users will listen, understand or care what the Zimbabwean is saying, though… but at least she can speak, which is something nearly impossible to do in a domestic context.

Increasingly, it strikes me that there are three types of netizens I want to hear from:
– folks who are in the right (wrong) place at the right (wrong) time: the commuter in the London underground when the bombs go off; Gnarlkitty, as she visits demonstrations surrounding the coup in Thailand.
– folks who have an insight or perspective I can’t easily find in mainstream media: TheMalau writing about Congolese politics; Russell Southwood writing about African telecoms; Roland Soong writing about, well, almost anything.
– folks who make themselves part of a distributed effort to create new knowledge: the researchers who pick apart records of Congressional pay for the Sunlight Foundation, the bloggers who cover the Kenyan parliament for Mzalendo.

(I guarantee that there’s at least one other model of citizen media that I find worth reading, but those are the three that came out in today’s talks.)

I got a great question at the NYU talk about “the caring problem”, from a student who introduced himself as having “worked in three of the four BRIC countries” (that’s Brazil, Russia, India and China, for anyone who’s keeping track.) He wondered how it was possible to get the people who were currently blogging in countries like India or Brazil to start writing about – and paying attention to – the situation their less fortunate countrymen faced, and whether it was realistic to get Americans to care about the problems of poor Brazilians if it’s a challenge to get wealthy Brazilians to pay attention to poor Brazilians. It’s a hell of a question, and one that I’m unable to answer without resorting to hopeful platitudes – maybe by attaching a human voice to the situation in Thailand or Iraq, we get people to care more about the political situation in those countries.

But the truth is that talking about the big issues – what the read/write web looks like in a world of two billion Internet users, the folks we have now plus a billion more users from the developing world – makes me worry that we’re far more likely to head towards a future of “Internets” rather than a single Internet. Who’s going to do the work Roland Soong does, translating conversations from the Chinese blogosphere for those of us who are shut out of the discussion by language? Once Jordanian bloggers have a sufficient audience of their countrymen online, will they be as concerned with talking to the outside world? As much as I want to see the world that Global Voices is tracking – the world of blogs that try to bridge different parts of the world – expand, I worry that we might actually be in a golden age, a moment where we’re still all interested in trying to talk to one another. It’s easy to imagine this moment passing.

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12 Responses to A day/night doubleheader

  1. Pingback: from the internet to the internets… at connecting*the*dots

  2. Ntwiga says:

    This thinking on your feet thing, have you ever had things go terribly wrong?

    Steve

  3. Ethan says:

    “…have you ever had things go terribly wrong?”

    Oh, about every third talk I give, Steve… :-)

  4. lynne says:

    wish i had been keeping up with your blog recently to know you’d be in nyc. i would have loved to see/hear your talks.

  5. Alaa says:

    interesting question, to me the age of the internets is the golden age the age of bridge blogs is something we need to get over pretty quickly.

    I’m much more interested and much more fascinated by blogospheres like Egypt’s or Iran’s where it is mostly about talking to your local audience (even if it is still smallish and from relatively privileged background), the jordanian blogs bore me to death cause most of them are concerned about collective representation to that vague entity the west.

    but at the same time I do appreciate globalvoices. having someone else to do the bridging sounds like a good idea (think of translated literature), not sure how sustainable it will be.

  6. Ethan says:

    I want both, Alaa – I want the blogosphere to be a great way to reach a local audience as well as to reach an international audience. It does mean that the role of something like GV will need to change, to focus more on translation and such. But I also think that figuring out how people talk to each other across national borders is an interesting question… Would the Jordanian blogosphere be more interesting to you if there were both the internal and the external conversations?

  7. Alaa says:

    Ethan, sure it would be more interesting but I’ll jsut read the local part, this is of course partly a selfish outlook I’m semi local and can read arabic so it makes sense this will interest me more.

    but even abstractly I find the more local “new media” more interesting.

    then there are people like baheyya (or Ahdaf Soueif from the literature world), who write for locals using English and the result is to say the least interesting.

    I guess part of my problem is the huge mindshare representation gets on the smaller blogospheres, I’d prefer to accidentaly find a bridge than to have one specifically constructed for me, somehow when people are too concerned about representation (meaning representing more than just themselves, becoming spokespeople for their nation/religion/ethnic group/whatever) it doesn’t work out so well.

    in terms of globalvoices I don’t enjoy reading global voices on the middle east, it feels wrong no matter how hard the editors try yet I love reading the rest (which probably means I can’t detect the flaws or the flaws are not that big and important anyways).

    but yeah it’s not a simple question, I guess I’ll need to see initiatives similar to globalvoices done not to bridge languages and cultures but to bridge the web, imagine a website with roundups, pointers and context in the local language to those who don’t like following blogs or who follow just a few blogs this would be exploring representation without the tiring and confusing east-west north-south dynamics, I’m sure GV can learn alot from such a project (I’m sure it’s been done hundreds of times already too).

    interestingly enough I am involved in a project that is supposed to do that but with narrow focus on activism and not general blogging, let’s see where it will take us.

  8. Pingback: links for 2006-10-12 at This is really happening.

  9. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » Transcript of ZCTU video

  10. Pingback: Center for Citizen Media: Blog » Blog Archive » Some Citizen Media Types

  11. Pingback: mathewingram.com/media » Why we still need editors

  12. Bill Allison says:

    If you’d like to contact the folks who participated in Sunlight’s “Is Congress a Family Business” project, just email me and I’ll pass on your contact info to them.

    We have phase two online now: http://www.sunlightfoundation.com/node/1489

    …and are hoping to get the original folks plus some new people to take part.

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